In this episode, Abbie Fink and Dr. Adrian McIntyre discuss the state of online reviews from the perspective of both customers and business owners – the value of feedback, the information we can glean from the reviews, and more importantly, what the business owner can and should do with that information.
Read Abbie Fink's blog post for this episode: "Is It Worth It To Ask for Online Reviews?"
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Copper State of Mind is a project of HMA Public Relations, a full-service public relations and marketing communications firm in Phoenix.
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The customer is always right. Right? Sometimes the customer is wrong. But sometimes the business is wrong, and the customer has an opinion about it. Online reviews have become a place where people not only applaud and celebrate the great service and products that they've received, but also the place where they pour out their anger and frustration over sometimes real problems and sometimes imaginary ones. What do you do as a business owner in a world where so much of the conversation about your business is not controlled by your marketing and communications professionals, but is in fact in the hands of the consumer? Online reviews is our topic on this Copper State of Mind. And here to share her thoughts about reviews, her opinions, her 4- to 5-star rating of reviews, is Abbie Fink, vice president, and general manager of HMA Public Relations. Abbie, what's on your mind?Abbie Fink:
Yeah, those online reviews. Well, I've been planning a vacation actually, and have been googling around trying to find, should I do this tour? Should I book this rental car? What about that hotel? And all of the review sites start populating my search and it's, this was dirty, this was clean. This was nice. This was that. And I'm like, goodness, there's this whole thing around reviews. And there's such valuable information within those reviews, if you can sort through it and find the nuggets of information. But I had a more personal experience this week. I had a follow-up visit with a medical professional and was talking about how good I was feeling and such, and the doctor without any hesitation asked if I would be willing to write a review for her on Yelp. And I thought, goodness, has it gotten to that level as well? Where our professional services orgs, our doctors are asking for reviews? And I asked her and she said, you'd be surprised that the number of people that, on a referral will do their homework, and the best place for them to find out information besides the individual that made the referral is from other patients that have taken the time to write a review. And I thought, all right then, there's something to say for the value of what those review sites are and why we might need to think a little bit more proactively about, whether or not we use them. And then if we use them, how we take advantage of that information.Adrian McIntyre:
It really is a dilemma because on the one hand, there's an incredible power in the hands of consumers in that their opinions can be visible. It used to be that if you had a bad experience with a business, you might tell 10 people and it would take you 10 days. And now if you have a bad experience, depending on your social followings, or the review sites you post on, you can tell millions of people in a matter of minutes. That has positives and negatives. And the real challenge is how to make sense of it on both sides. As you say, you're planning a vacation, you're reading reviews, but you can also tell that sometimes people have a chip on their shoulder, or they have a different set of values than you have. And so you're reading between the lines, trying to figure out is this information really going to help me or not. And, of course, as the business owner, you and I are both in a position where we have had positive reviews and negative reviews, and we've thought about how to respond to those, in some cases there's really nothing you can do about it. In other cases, there are some specific steps that you can take to either respond, or in some cases, when the review is completely off base, inappropriate, irrelevant, makes no sense whatsoever, you can sometimes get it removed, but there's a whole process to that. And it really is a tricky thing. Where do you want to start this? From the perspective of the communications professional, that's who we're often speaking to here on this podcast, reviews are important and ought to be taken seriously, but do you think that everyone should be out there asking everybody? It's like when you go to the car dealer and at the end you pick up your car or whatever, after the service, and they say, please leave me a 5-star review because that's the only way I'll get paid. And it's like, it's unacceptable to them for you to leave anything less than 5 stars, in which case I'm like, well, I'm not going to waste my time at all. What do you do?Abbie Fink:
I think there's a lot to unpack in the conversation. I think that your comment about when we felt we had gotten bad service at a location in the past, we may ask to speak to the manager. We might raise our voice a little bit, so the others in the room might hear us, and we would demand to get our money back, or make this right, or I will never shop here again. And there was a response and an exchange and a business that has empowered their frontline team to make decisions would offer you a gift certificate, or comp your meal, or take the item back that clearly did not belong to the store, whatever it would be. And we felt satisfaction. We were heard and we got resolution. And now instead of marching up to the front desk and demanding to speak to a manager, we open up our app and we make some comment in Yelp or Google or on their Facebook page or whatever it is. And that's really the equivalent of, let me speak to the manager. The difference being that the manager is now got to go find that information. They're not face to face with that upset customer any longer, it's out there into the universe. So if you are a community manager and the person that is taking care of your organization's brand in the online space, you have to be paying attention to what people are saying about you, good or bad. And it may not be that it's done in an official go to your Facebook page, or go onto one of these review sites. It could very well be just on someone's page, a personal page. You and I are friends on Facebook and I go on about a particular brand and create a conversation. But the onus is on that business and the person that manages that to really pay attention, but the value in the information that can be obtained from legitimate complaints, if we want to give them that credibility, that there was an issue, that I did have a bad meal, or service was less than stellar, or the sheets weren't clean in the hotel. That's a legitimate complaint and deserves to be recognized and corrected. And good businesses, A, will respond to that information and acknowledge that we heard what your complaint is and will mine that information to determine if in fact there's a problem. The platforms themselves are not the problem. There's nothing wrong with the Yelp sites or the Google review sites. They're there for a purpose. The content that's on there as the business owner is really what we need to be paying attention to and learning from, both if they're praising and their complimenting, and probably more importantly, if they're not. I don't have an issue with a business proactively asking for reviews. That business recognizes the value of what the review sites are, how a vast majority of consumers, probably in a more transactional environment, are using those review sites to help make decisions. So they understand the value of what they can do. They are also, by asking, in most cases are probably asking a satisfied customer. You're not going to ask the angry, upset customer to go on and purposely tell somebody that on the review site, but if you've had a good experience, they very well may ask you to do that. And I don't take issue with the asking, but I do want to ensure that by asking, you're paying attention to the next steps and that you are actually using that information and learning from the information that you're getting. A similar scenario with the car dealership. And I did have less than perfect experience at a particular dealership. And I actually said to the manager, "Don't ask me to do the review, because I know you only want me to give you a 5-star review and I can't. So you're better that I don't do one, let's deal with it, you and I together. And when the problem is resolved, and I feel like I have been taken care of satisfactorily, I'll go back and give you the review at the time." So, there's got to be an exchange between the business and the consumer, if you're going to actively pursue review positive and, or negative review sites.Adrian McIntyre:
There's another dimension to this that I thought of as you were speaking just a few moments ago, and I hadn't really thought about this before, but I find it relatively fascinating as a social scientist who thinks about things like crowd behavior. So everybody wants to be heard. Everybody wants to have their complaints addressed in a thoughtful way. That's human nature. And you're right. It was once that we wanted that response from the business, that what we were seeking, the gap we were trying to fill in that moment was something there in our interaction with the business. The dynamic that is now somewhat more troubling and somewhat more problematic is when the person with a complaint literally wants nothing from the business. What they want is attention from the algorithms where they're planning on posting the thing. So, the TikTok complaint, or the video that's gone viral because someone's trying to expose something. And what they're actually after is the engagement on the social platform, more than the thing from the business. And this complicates things, because obviously business owners who want to do the right thing need to deal with the situation, need to learn from it as best they can, need to make it right when it's wrong, all of that. But when we've got this other attention seeking behavior, and I'm usually not so down on this, except for in this context, it really does create some problematic dynamics. How do you make it right when a person is overjoyed, that they can now complain in a way that's liable to get this response? And we've talked on this show about the piling on effect of people just jumping in to dunk on something. Now look when it's wrong and we can use our leverage to make it right. Let's do that. But clearly there's an intent issue here, is your intent to make this right, to help the business do better, to resolve the situation, etcetera, or is your intent to get attention? I think we have to be able to have an honest conversation about that.Abbie Fink:
Well, and I'm not sure that I have a hard and fast response to, because I do think you're right. There is, for every legitimate I had terrible service and I need resolution there's, I'm just going to say I have it, or I just need to create this because I want the attention. And you certainly don't want to have your attention diverted to these unreal responses, versus what is legitimately a complaint that can and should be addressed. And so there's, can I rely on my gut instinct? To some degree, to say this is really the one that needs my attention. This is the one I need to pay attention to. This is the consistency of the messaging, I've seen this complaint three, four, five, ten times in the last couple months, perhaps that's now an issue that requires a little bit more attention. Conversely, I've seen the positive comment about, Adrian gets mentioned quite a few times on the review sites as paying close attention, being good high customer service. I need to acknowledge that as well. So, there's part of this that doesn't have a best practices and a scientific approach to it. You learn it as you go and you evolve into what you know to be truthful and realistic in terms of what the responses are. The interesting thing to me is the difference between, so a TikTok video is a very, or any one of them that's created independent of an actual review site, has a very different algorithm and a mechanism behind it than if I go to Google and I pull up the business, and I write that review within the context of that person's page, which is a very specific, I need to do this for this purpose. If I pull out my cell phone and record my anger, and then post it to my site, there's a different motivation behind that. And it still deserves to be paid attention to, we don't ignore those simply because they didn't go through the normal review channel to post it. But we learn to figure out which ones become those that require our attention, or the ones that are generating attention that need us to acknowledge and figure out whether or not our response is required. I think where we get the most questions, and when someone reaches out to us and says, we've got some bad reviews, can you help us. The discussion around what are the reviews? Where are they? What's being said? How realistic is the response? Is any of what is being said truthful? Can we acknowledge that there is a grain of truth in what is being said? And if so, then how do we figure out how to learn from that information and rectify the situation? If we go with the assumption that we want to be heard, then an acknowledgement of some kind, a change in process or protocol, and that we can announce that we've responded to customer concerns and are now doing X, Y or Z, goes a long way in making that behavior, or the complaint that was posted to be resolved. I think for me, the worst thing is when I go to those review sites, and if I do see negative complaints, and there's no entry point from the owner of that business to acknowledge it. And so if you've ignored it, you've created even more of an issue than what the issue was to start with.Adrian McIntyre:
Yeah, for sure. And in just a couple episodes ago, Jon Goldberg with Reputation Architects shared a great story about a Facebook review. Go back and check it out folks. It was episode 28. But basically the idea is, even when there is a real problem, and in this case, the business owner didn't respond right away because they're a landscaper, they weren't paying attention, whatever, but they came back later and they wrote a long and thoughtful response, and they took ownership of the problem. They explained what they had done to address the, wasn't even a customer, it was someone who had an issue with the way a driver was acting in the community. And that goes a long way. So these are always opportunities. I think what I said a few minutes ago about intent on the reviewer side should also be discussed with intent on the business owner side. Look, if your intentions are good and you are open to feedback, and you're eager to learn about gaps in the service that's being provided, or problems with the product, and you embrace that feedback because you want to learn and you want to make it better, and you want to improve, and you're willing to hear other people's points of view. That's not common, but it is exceptional. It's good. It indicates that the business has its head and heart in the right place. But that means you've got to be willing to hear when there are problems. And not everyone's willing to do that. How do you advise folks, when you're having a conversation, and we've talked a lot about crisis management and how the best way to manage a crisis is not to have one. We've talked about doing good as a way to actually make the community better, as well as have positive PR stories that come out of it. Obviously all these are upstream from the marketing or the communications side of it, but it goes to the willingness to work on the fundamentals of the business, of the relationships, of the quality of what's being provided. How do you talk about that when someone says, hey, we got a bad review, make it go away? And the real conversation as well, was it true? Do you need to change something? How do you deal with that?Abbie Fink:
And you can't make it go away. There's something prompted this to appear whether it's right or wrong, it's there. So, yes. So the questions have to be business owner, is there any truth to what's being said? And if there is, what are we doing to rectify the situation, or what are we learning from this particular scenario that we have plans to address, or how we need to respond? Now, I'm not suggesting that absolutely every single post on a review site requires a response from the owner. And if you are, it's not a cut and paste, thank you for your review, because we can see right through that as the consumer. It's really about that authentic communication and engagement with these, the posters, the people that are putting that content out there, and acknowledging if, in fact, an error has been made, or an issue has been brought to their attention that we are now correcting, this is what we're doing. And maybe I look at this a little bit differently in that I'm oftentimes the one that's helping to evaluate and help craft responses and to determine whether or not we can do that. But there are human beings on the back end of all of these sites. There is somebody, whether they're acknowledging, or working, or posting, there are people that are looking at these kinds of things. And I think where the consumer that looks at these review sites is, and should be equally as engaged with the resolution responses as they are with the actual post themselves. So if I see two or three negative comments, and then I see a response from that business that says, thank you for bringing this to our attention. We did X, Y, and Z. We will be doing this. Please give us another chance. And then I'm like, well, all right, they've done what they can to rectify the situation. I am very intentional if I am going to go and do any kind of negative response on public review, because I really want to be able. And again, I come to it because I do this as well, but I want to offer that business owner some feedback besides just saying, this is what was wrong. This is what was wrong. Perhaps you could consider, fill in the blank, whatever that might be. If I get that resolution, or I get the acknowledgement, I will go back on and acknowledge that. Thank you, Mr. Jones for responding to my post. I appreciate the effort that you and whatever it might be. Because again, as a consumer, I want to see the dialogue. I don't just want to see the complaints, I want to see what the business has done to resolve it. And I think that if you take the time to ask for the review, then you need to take the same amount of time, if not more, to analyze and respond to what those reviews are and whether you proactively seek those out, or if you've made an online reservation anytime in the last handful of years, you get an automatic, will you rate us email reply? Well, if you're going to do that, and you're going to ask for it, then you have to be prepared to respond to it. Whether or not the customer says, yes, you can contact me about my review, or they simply post anonymously. It requires some attention and some acknowledgement. And if it's consistently calling your attention to certain things, you have to work to resolve them. And you can use that to publicly talk about your business. You can use that to say, we've elicited customer response. And this is the changes that we've made to our business as a result, or we've elicited our customer's feedback. And because of what you've done, we have done X, or we have found no issues with our Y and we will not be making any changes, whatever it is. There's just the acknowledgement that you've heard the individual, or you've heard the multiple consumers that have taken the time to reach out to you.Adrian McIntyre:
An example is, if you think about an Amazon product listing. Reviews are an important part of the Amazon ecosystem. There have been questions raised in recent years about people gaming the system and potentially putting in fake reviews to rig the whole thing. And I'm always suspicious if I see a product that has four and a half stars, 8,000 reviews, but then I click on the 1- star reviews and I filter by just those. And I see 300 people who say the zipper breaks. I know, listen, there's a problem here. And maybe some of those positive reviews, aren't legit. I don't know, obviously you can't say with any certainty. But I would love it if the product description were updated and it said "New for 2022, with reinforced zipper." Then I'm like, "Okay, thank you!"Abbie Fink:
Right. Someone listened.Adrian McIntyre:
And I see that those comments were from 2018 and I'm like, great. All right, perfect. So there are positive reviews, people pointed out a problem. And as you say, you have to look, if you're just scanning the headline and you see the four and a half stars with 8,000 reviews, you might make a decision on that. Although I think some people are aware of that and are trying to rig the system in their favor. But hopefully, as with democracy, the more educated the consumer actually is, the better the outcome. That's the theory anyway. So what do folks need to take away from this? Do they need to change the way they think about online reviews? Do they need to change how they communicate with their customers? Having gone through several experiences, positive and negative, in recent weeks, what are your final thoughts on the online review dilemma?Abbie Fink:
Sure. So, as a business who is in a consumer space where people are going to be engaging with your business, whether you proactively seek out reviews, you have to assume that people are going to be talking about you in the online space. And so it is imperative that you pay attention to your reputation online. And if there are consistencies in the conversation, both positive or negative that are coming out about your business, you owe it to your consumers and you owe it to yourself and your business to listen to that information. It is data that is being provided to you. It is research that's being conducted on your behalf that you can use to your advantage. And you owe it to, again, to yourself and to those consumers to acknowledge, and to make a opportunity from the information that you are gathering to make positive changes to your business, if it's appropriate to do so. As a consumer, when you take the time to do that, recognize that there is somebody on the other end of that information. And so if you have constructive criticism, it will be valued by the business if it is written in such a way that is constructive. And that offers up the specific scenario and exactly what occurred at that particular time, and offers up the suggestions or what resolution it is that you're hoping to accomplish by sharing this review. And remembering that on the other end of this is a business, is a individual that's responsible for reviewing and analyzing. And that, that feedback that you can provide is valuable to that business and will be valuable to its other customers. And so this give and take that we have in this review, some of us might not like it, some of us would wish they would go away, but there is extremely valuable information in that review process that smart businesses will pay attention to it and will use that to their advantage.